In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama put colleges and universities on notice: "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down." College "can't be a luxury," he added, and affordable tuition is "an economic imperative" for families and the nation alike. Obama has since backed up his words with proposals, including "scorecards" that would let students better compare schools' costs and value, and continued threats to shift federal dollars away from schools that don't control costs. Should pricey schools really be punished?
Obama's plan won't work: "'Punishing' schools that don't control costs" is futile, because most rising costs have nothing to do with the colleges themselves, say Michael McPherson and Sandy Baum in the Chicago Tribune. The main cause is the decision by cash-strapped states to slash higher-ed funding. "Everyone would like a magic bullet that would dramatically reduce the cost of educating students." But the truth is, high-quality education costs money, and nobody wants to pay for it. Obama can't punish schools into changing that reality.
"Can we keep colleges affordable?"
It would work if Obama went farther: Oklahoma State's Vance Fried found that schools can "provide a first-class undergraduate education for only $6,700 a year," says Daniel Freedman at Forbes. His recipe — slash university administrations, increase class sizes, and separate research from teaching — won't be popular. But if colleges want federal money, they need to prove Prof. Fried wrong. And Obama should boldly challenge them to do so.
"The Obama deal: Harvard for $6,700 a year?"
Let's give transparency a try first: Obama's threat to cut federal funding to schools that don't control tuition costs is "premature" at best, says the Albany, N.Y., Times Union in an editorial. But we applaud his "call for greater transparency" on the value of different colleges. Using a scorecard that compares schools by the amount of debt you'll incur, your chances of graduating, and the odds of getting a job is a no-brainer. Once would-be applicants are armed with that data, the marketplace might impose "an adjustment in college cost inflation" on its own.
"Cheer, cheer for Transparency U."